Gibraltar

The Peculiarities of Gibraltar and Other British Overseas Territories


Gibraltar’s position as a British Overseas Territory makes it a geopolitical anomaly. Britain’s scattered overseas colonial remnants are under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom but are not part of it*. Since the passage of the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002 their inhabitants have enjoyed full British citizenship, but they are not under the rule of English law. Perhaps most confusingly, all of the UK’s fourteen overseas territories enjoy “concurrent European Union citizenship, giving them rights of free movement across all EU member states.” But only Gibraltar is in the EU, yet it not within the EU customs union, and it does not possess EU membership in its own right.

Anomalous geopolitical situations often generate both opportunities and disputes. Taxes are generally kept low, partly to maintain local popularity of the foreign regime, but this has the side effect of encouraging both trade and smuggling. Neighboring countries often resent not just the smuggling but the sheer persistence of such foreign bases. As we have seen in previous postings, Spain claims Gibraltar and Argentina demands both the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and the South Georgia group; in addition, both Mauritius and Seychelles lay claim to the British Indian Ocean Territory, the most important island of which — Diego Garcia — is leased to the United States military.

Isolation from Britain, proximity to other lands, historical openness to migration, and geopolitical distinctiveness have all helped nurture cultural particularities in the UK’s Overseas Territories. Idiosyncratic forms of speech are common, and Gibraltar is no exception. Gibraltarians are called “Llanitos,” a term of uncertain provenance that also refers to the peninsula’s dialect — if indeed the local language merits that designation. From the limited number of sources that I could find, Llanito appears to be a variety of the Spanish dialect of Andalusian that employs a number of English and other foreign expressions. Llanito-speakers often alternate rapidly between English and Spanish, a practice known as “code-switching.” Llanito is seldom written, but it does have its own dictionary, and several BBC programs have been aired in it. Llanito is influenced by Haketia (or Western Ladino), a Hebrew- and Moroccan-Arabic-influenced form of archaic Spanish spoken by Jews whose ancestors fled across the Strait of Gibraltar after being expelled by Spain in 1492. After Britain gained Gibraltar in the early 1700s, a Jewish community reestablished itself, bringing its language and other cultural practices. The Treaty of Utrecht, by which Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain, expressly forbade the immigration of Jews; the fact that Britain ignored this stipulation forms one of grounds that Spain historically used for demanding the return of the Rock.

The 30,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar have mixed ethnic origins as well as linguistic practices. Judging from surnames, roughly a quarter of Gibraltar’s population is of British derivation, another quarter Spanish, and about a fifth Italian; others sources include Morocco, Portugal, and India. Such diversity is notable for a territory that encompasses a mere 2.7 square miles (6.8 square kilometers), forty percent of which is a nature reserve focused on the uninhabited Rock of Gibraltar. Over the centuries, the various peoples of the peninsula have largely melded into their own ethnic group. They have found communal cohesion in their desire to maintain the status quo and resist incorporation into Spain. According to the Wikipedia, Gibraltar’s voters rejected joint sovereignty with Spain in 2002 by a margin of 99 percent, an unprecedented figure, to my knowledge, in a free election.

The people of Gibraltar are not the only members of Britain’s Overseas Territories to have been concerned about possible abandonment by London. A recent article from the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Caribbean territory, relates mounting fears last year that the previous Labor government “would have happily ended Britain’s relationship with its Overseas Territories, leaving them to fend for themselves.” The article went on to express relief that the current administration, and especially deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, believes that Turks and Caicos “matters greatly” to the British government, and that “Britain and its people have a duty to look after the interests of all of its Overseas Territories.”

Although many people would like to see the final dismantling of the British Empire, such a sentiment is shared by scant few of the inhabitants of its remnant possessions. For them, living in an overseas territory means not exploitation and colonization, but security, special tax and passport privileges, and economic subsidies. The endgame of empire is nothing if not ironic.

*As an additional note of complexity, the Overseas Territories are not the only places that are under but not part of the United Kingdom; the same is true of the Crown Dependencies — the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man — which have a particularly convoluted constitutional relationship with the British government. The Channel Islands are also of note for the name of their two subdivisions, focused on the two main islands: the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. A bailiwick was the domain of the bailiff, a legal officer appointed by the king, such as a sheriff.

The Peculiarities of Gibraltar and Other British Overseas Territories Read More »

Britain Vs. Spain and Spain Vs. Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar

Maritime chokepoints, where ships must pass through narrow passageways, are sites of geopolitical advantage that have often been contested. Sea-based empires, especially Portugal in the 1500s and Britain in the 1800s, seized and garrisoned towns and fortresses at the entrance to marine chokepoints scattered over vast distances. Today, remnants of earlier imperial projects are evident on the maps of several such passageways. The southern bank of the Strait of Hormuz, for example, remains an exclave of Oman, once a formidable naval power, while Singapore, established as the “Gibraltar of the East” at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, is the world’s premier city-state.

The Strait of Gibraltar itself, joining the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, is arguably the world’s foremost maritime chokepoint. It certainly is the most geopolitically contested. The strait itself is essentially controlled by Spain to the north and Morocco to the south, as one would expect. But its Mediterranean gateway, marked by two promontories once deemed the Pillars of Hercules,* falls under a different sovereign regime. The “Spanish” side is controlled by the U.K., whereas the “Moroccan” side is controlled by Spain. Neither Spain nor Morocco accepts these foreign enclaves. Spain wants to retain Ceuta and reclaim Gibraltar, Morocco seeks to control Ceuta, and Britain is determined to keep Gibraltar.

Spain and Britain gained these possessions during their naval heydays. Ceuta was seized first by Portugal in 1415, an event that some say gave birth to the Portuguese Empire. That empire passed in its entirely to the Spanish crown after a disastrous Portuguese invasion of Morocco in 1580; Portugal regained its independence in 1640, but Spain kept Ceuta. Gibraltar fell to an English-Dutch naval campaign in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession; Spain formally ceded sovereignty to Britain in the Treaty of Utrech in 1713. Spain has periodically sought to regain Gibraltar, just as Morocco has tried on occasion to redeem Ceuta, but neither country has had any success.

According to the Spanish government, Gibraltar is a colonized portion of Spanish territory — an unconscionable geopolitical anachronism. Spanish pressure helps keep the peninsula on the United Nation’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, regarded as colonial remnants. Britain responds that people of Gibraltar actually enjoy democratic self-governance through their own parliament, as well as British citizenship. In the 1990s, Britain and Spain hammered out a proposal for joint sovereignty, but the Gibraltarians rejected it overwhelmingly in a 2002 referendum. The Spanish government maintains that their wishes are of no account, as the dispute is between the sovereign powers of Britain and Spain. But in 2006, Spain agreed to talks with Britain and with the leadership of Gibraltar itself, aimed at facilitating trans-border linkages. Progress has not been easy. In August 2010, the mayor of the adjoining Spanish town of La Linea announced plans for new tolls on traffic between the peninsula and the mainland, citing the need to make up for revenues lost in Spain’s budgetary crisis.

The dispute between Spain and Morocco over Ceuta and other Spanish possessions in the region is much more intense. In early 2010, Morocco called for renewed dialogue on Spain’s cross-straits holdings; Madrid responded by reaffirming its sovereignty over the contested lands, which include not just Ceuta but also the exclave of Melilla and a number of near-shore islands. Morocco subsequently charged Spanish authorities with mistreating Moroccan citizens in and around the territories, heightening the conflict. In August 2010, massive Moroccan protests temporarily blocked overland transit into the two Spanish exclaves, threatening their economies.

It may seem hypocritical for Spain to demand the return of Gibraltar while consistently rebuffing similar Moroccan claims in North Africa. Its government insists, however, that the two situations are not the same. Ceuta and Melilla, it argues, are integral parts of Spain, not colonial holdings. Their residents not only possess Spanish citizenship, but vote in Spanish elections, pay Spanish taxes (albeit at a reduced rate), and have all other rights and responsibilities of membership in the national community, as well as the E.U. The position of Gibraltar, the Spanish government maintains, is colonial. As a British Overseas Territory, the peninsula is under British sovereignty yet is not part of the United Kingdom. Gibraltar even has its own currency, the Gibraltar Pound, which is not legal tender in the United Kingdom. The dispute is further complicated by the fact that Spain never formally ceded the isthmus, which remains under British-Gibraltarian control.

The territorial anomalies in and around the Strait of Gibraltar have a number of interesting cultural features as well as potentially serious geopolitical implications, as will be explored in subsequent Geocurrents this week.

* Although the northern “pillar” is clearly Gibraltar, debates persist on the identity of its southern counterpart. Some scholar favor Monte Hacho on the peninsula of Ceuta; others Jebel Musa, located a few miles away in Morocco.

Britain Vs. Spain and Spain Vs. Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar Read More »